August 18, 2017 – A total solar eclipse will cross the continental United States on Monday, August 21. While a total eclipse will occur along a 70-mile-wide band including the states of Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois, the entire country will be able to experience a partial eclipse. Those in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas will experience a deep partial eclipse, with approximately 80 percent of the sun obscured by the moon.
Because of this once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event, the number of employees taking time off work and traveling throughout the United States will likely reach record numbers. Events like these serve as good reminders for employers on how to accommodate an increased inflow of time-off requests and unplanned absences, while abiding by legal obligations and minimizing workplace disruptions.
If you are one of many viewing the solar eclipse on August 21, be sure to do so with proper eye protection. Looking at the sun during an eclipse is unsafe and can cause serious injury to your eyes. Read NASA’s Solar Eclipse Safety Guide and only purchase eclipse glasses from reputable vendors.
When faced with an increased number of requests for time off, employers should do everything possible to follow their standard policies and procedures for granting time-off requests. Ideally, employers would have the capacity to accommodate all employee requests for time off, but it may simply not be possible due to operational needs. In these situations, employers should use a mechanism for prioritizing requests, such as the time a request was submitted.
If feasible, employers should provide employees advance notice of temporary modifications in their time-off policies, preferably in writing, and apply the modified practices consistently. The key is to enforce time-off policies uniformly. For example, an employer grants requests for time off to view the solar eclipse, but denies requests off for other reasons. Examples like this could ultimately lead to discrimination claims.
Even with established procedures for requesting time off, employers will likely face challenges resulting from last-minute, unplanned absences of employees. The best solution is to plan ahead and assume at least a couple employees will unexpectedly be absent.
Another issue during such events is a large number of suspicious, unannounced absences by employees. For example, an employee tells his or her employer that he or she is sick and unable to come into work, but the employer has doubts regarding the reason for the employee’s absence. In this situation, the employer should apply its sick leave policy and not request a doctor’s note, unless it’s the employer’s standard practice to do so. Additionally, an employer should consult the applicable law in the states in which it operates to determine if any limitations on requesting a doctor’s note apply.
Proactive employers may decide to limit absences by offering incentives to come to work on the day of the event. Fun, team-building activities centered around the event is sure to improve employee morale, build relationships among colleagues, and help minimize unplanned absences.
Potential for Religious Requests
Employers must be aware of the possibility that employees may request accommodations based on their religious beliefs and practices in relation to such events. This includes an employee requesting time off to observe the event, which the employee claims to be specifically tied to his or her religious beliefs and observances.
Under the federal law and majority of state anti-discrimination laws, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees or applicants based on religion. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has a broad definition of “religion” and protects all types of religious beliefs and all aspects of religious observances and practices. According to guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, protected faiths include not only the major, well-recognized religions, but also “religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”
Just because an employer might not see a connection between an event and an employee’s religious beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean the employee doesn’t see one. Employers must therefore tread carefully if faced with requests for religious accommodation in connection with such events.
If you have any questions or need assistance with workplace situations related to time-off requests, please contact your North Risk Partners advisor. Don’t have an advisor? No problem. We’ll help you find one.
This blog post is not intended to be exhaustive. Readers should contact legal counsel for legal advice. Content provided by our consulting partners at Synergy Human Resources.